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For Release: Dec. 14, 1998

Bob Allen
(757) 864-6176

Michael P. Finneran
(757) 864-6121/6124

Release No. 98-095

LAUNCHING JAN. 3
Langley Aeroshell Design Aids Search for Water on Mars

Engineers at Langley had plenty to do with an essential component of NASA's next Mars mission.

NASA's Mars Polar Lander '98 spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Station at 3:21 p.m. EST on Jan. 3, 1999. Two groundbreaking Mars Microprobes that could uncover clues about life on the Red Planet will be "hitchhikers" during its 11-month journey.

Langley researchers worked closely with their counterparts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to design and test the aeroshell that will shield the microprobes during their entry and descent into Mars' atmosphere. The aeroshell will protect the microprobes from the remarkable stresses encountered during their 14,000-mile-per-hour atmospheric entry and enable them to align themselves properly to the surface for impact.

The basketball-sized microprobes weigh about eight pounds each. They will detach from the Lander, free-fall through Mars' atmosphere, and crash land at more than 400 miles per hour without the aid of parachutes, rockets, or airbags. As the microprobes slam into Mars, experiencing forces up to 80,000 times Earth's gravity, the aeroshell will shatter. The impact's force will bury the microprobes one to six feet below the surface, making them NASA's first planetary penetrators.

The embedded microprobes will use a tiny drill to take subsurface samples of Martian soil. These samples will be heated, and a laser will be aimed through the gases that boil off to look for signs of water vapor. The microprobes will relay their findings back to Earth via the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, which already is orbiting Mars. The results of this experiment could hold the key to answering questions about past or present life on Mars.

The leaders of the Langley teams that designed and tested the aeroshell, Dr. Robert D. Braun and Dr. Robert A. Mitcheltree, are available for interviews. Due to the season and the launch schedule, televised interviews can be arranged between Dec. 14 - 22 and Dec. 29 - 31. B-roll with interview clips is available. Drs. Braun and Mitcheltree will be available for telephone interviews Dec. 23 and 28 and Jan. 2 - 4.

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